As the father of three, I have endured countless school plays. As a professional actor/writer/director, my sensibilities have often been raked over the coals. But, what those little darlings lacked in skill, the elementary kids made up for in adorable. By middle school, adorable was replaced with awkward and the plays got a little longer. By the time they hit high school, the plays weren’t a painful hour, they were suicide-inducing full-length efforts that left me wanting to flee the hot gym, screaming. When my oldest daughter was a senior year in high school, my wife told me to take that theater department by the hand and help our daughter have a senior theater experience to remember.
My initial thought was “Woman, are you on crack? But after much prodding, I relented. I told the administration at our Catholic high school that I was going to do Brighton Beach Memoirs. I convinced them that the references to whacking off in the play were “relevant” and harmless. Talk about a miracle — they signed off on it. I called in favors from every designer friend I had. Having never directed kids, I couldn’t guarantee the performances, but at least the production values wouldn’t suck.
I jumped into the process thinking, at least they’re motivated. I discovered they were teachable. They were fearless. They were very directable. I discovered another miracle – I was having the time of my life. As I guided them through the rehearsal process, I watched these students break every lousy acting habit they had learned in high school drama class; they began to live in the moment and inhabit these wonderful characters with truthfulness. They were actually listening to each other. As I changed their lives, they changed mine.
The year after Brighton Beach, my son’s high school asked me to come and direct a play. I decided to do The Miracle Worker. Again, I had an incredible time working with these students as they thrilled the faculty and students alike. It was suddenly cool to be a drama kid. The Miracle Worker changed that school. With new respect for the arts and a new standard of excellence, the students reached higher and performed better than they ever thought possible. And I saw my vision for this beloved play come to life. When Actors Co-op announced it was doing The Miracle Worker this season, I went after it with passion. It was thrilling to think of re-visiting this marvelous play with professional actors.
Actors Co-op has two 99-seat theaters. The David Schall Theater is a proscenium with high ceilings. The Crossley Theatre is a thrust with a very low ceiling. When they offered me the Crossley Theatre I was immediately struck with two big challenges: how to stage the breakfast scene with spoons flying everywhere and the audience literally two feet away from the actors, and how to stage the scene in which Annie Sullivan has to climb out of her bedroom window. I am not a tall man, and even I can almost touch the lighting grid standing on my toes. But, I said to myself, “Take the job, Babbes, you’ll figure it out.”
My producer Selah Victor put together a production team second to none. Set designer Mark Svastics designed a perfect set for this intimate space and fixed these two issues for me. Miracle after miracle began to happen. First, we put together an incredible cast. Next, because of the physical nature of some of the scenes, I needed to stage them as if they were a dance while keeping a sense of real danger. I call it “controlled chaos”. As we rehearsed, we broke plates. We shattered glass. We broke chair after chair. It’s a miracle that no one got hurt. But now with controlled chaos, the breakfast scene looks dangerous and audience members sitting near the dining room table are safe but have the impulse to duck as the spoons fly.
Another aspect of the play I wanted to rethink was Annie’s nightmare sequences. In the script her demons are all represented by voiceovers. I wanted to take it further. I wanted the audience to experience the horror of the demons in her head. So I decided to make her little dead brother Jimmie a physical character in the play. My friend and voiceover actor James Arnold Taylor produced a series of sound effects for all the nightmares that keep audience members on edge.
Staging The Miracle Worker in this intimate space was challenging. In such close proximity to the acting area, the audience cannot help but be a part of it and in kind moved by this timeless story, which celebrates life and teaches us that with faith and perseverance miracles do happen.
The Miracle Worker, Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood 90028, on the campus of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm. (Additional Saturday matinees onApril 20 and May 18 2:30 pm.) Through May 19. Tickets: $30. www.ActorsCo-op.org. 323-462-8460 ext. 300.
**All The Miracle Worker production photos by Lindsay Schnebly.
Thom Babbes has been an actor/director in Los Angeles since the 1980s. A writer as well, he has sold five full-length screenplays — two produced by Roger Corman. His short film The Audition was named best comedy at the 168 Film Festival and his recent short X-Treme Weekend has screened at film festivals in U.S. and Canada and is now a nine-episode web series. He currently teaches media production, acting and screenwriting at Village Christian School.